Open season

Slate gray skies threaten snowfall as the straggling leaves of autumn still stubbornly cling to their branches, suggesting that winter is not too far off for Minot.

Meanwhile, wreaths and ornaments have already begun to dot area stores and businesses, inevitably spreading before this year’s holiday season makes its official start by Thanksgiving.

“If it’s not already started, it’s starting now,” said Wendy Howe, executive director of Visit Minot, the city’s recently rebranded convention and visitors bureau. For many retailers the holidays see the biggest sales of the year, and those plying wares in Minot are no different. Nudging the season’s start dates further back each year tries to stretch consumers’ munificence for a little longer, which explains the sometime-phenomenon of Christmas in September.

“Everybody wants to be the first one to the dance,” Howe said, and businesses compete with each other to offer the biggest discounts, and sooner.

Predicting how each shopping season will go can be difficult. “It’s very difficult to make predictions like that,” she said. “Essentially, you’re taking out your crystal ball.”

One way to do so is to look backward to compare periods and identify trends. Referring to the city’s 1-percent sales tax can be a useful indicator; for example, she explained that a $6.6 million take by July of this year roughly indicates that a total of $660 million was spent in the city on taxable goods and services, excluding food and beverages. At first glance, comparing this to the $7.9 million (from $790 million total) collected by the same time in 2012 would suggest that sales might not be doing as well this year.

“It was not a normal year,” Howe said, with construction and recovery costs related to the 2011 flood pushing sales in the city to record-smashing levels. By the end of 2012, Minot collected taxes on upwards of $1.33 billion spent on goods and services. “You almost have to take that out from comparison.” Compare the year instead with the normal, pre-flood year of 2010, where the city sales tax take by its end was at $8.6 million (indicating around $860 million spent in total).

“We are doing very well,” concluded Howe, made better by continued expansion being fueled by the growing population and boosted by Bakken petrodollars. In contrast, on a more national level conditions of a recovering economy are making predictions for seasonal sales less than optimistic.

With the harshness of the area’s winter weather to consider, Visit Minot has shifted its focus to promoting the city’s indoor advantages, such as retail. “Make Minot your destination for all things retail,” is its motto.

“We have a lot of new retail stores in Minot,” Howe said. “It’s really going to be more of a draw than ever.”

She explained that Minot acts as the retail hub of northwestern North Dakota, in addition to its outlying neighbors. Many Minot shoppers are Canadian, because “it saves them a great deal to shop in the U.S.” Even compared to a larger city such as Regina, Howe said “there’s more choices here.”

The many new hotels that have been built in the past year should also make the city more accommodating to visiting shoppers. “We really have seen a lot of availability,” in terms of for-hire hospitality. The website serves as a handy reference for hotels, in addition to posting restaurants, shops, and an updated events calendar.

But with Christmas a mere 43 days away, how are Minot businesses preparing for the holidays?

“Just like we do every year,” said Phillip Graef, general manager at Menards. Holding a Christmas decor sale, the store will put up decorations of its own as well. Closed on Thanksgiving, the hardware retailer will maintain its same hours during the season.

As far as sales can be expected to go, as outdoor construction projects wind to a close Graef said that people focus on indoor work. “It’s about the same,” he said. “It’s just a transition.”

With a sizable section devoted to Christmas decorations, Hobby Lobby was already prepared for the holidays back in July. At least 14 aisles were devoted to the winter holiday, with bunting, bows, wrapping paper and other festive odds and ends topping any space available around the store. “We’re a big seasonal merchandiser,” explained Tom Bitz, the store’s manager.

“We’re open an hour earlier and an hour later,” but just for the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving.

Operations director for Dakota Square Mall, Kyle Schmidt, explained that decorations are already going up around the mall. “They’re starting right now,” with Santa and his elves already starting to take requests as of Saturday. The mall will open its doors at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving for the Black Friday weekend, though vendors will have their own varied hours.

“We’re working on a listing,” said Schmidt, which will be posted on doors and put up on its ( site. “Any day now it should be there.” Later hours during the holiday season will also be announced.

“We already started,” said Barnes & Noble’s assistant manager, Sue Brown. “We’ve got a lot of fun, gift kinds of things,” and the store will be adopting a more seasonable color scheme. “We do a lot of signage. We’ll be having different days,” as well, with special offers and features throughout the season. In the mean time, Barnes & Noble is accepting applications for additional help.

The holidays will kick off for the national bookseller at 6 a.m. on Black Friday, the extra activity continuing well into January as people use the gift cards they received in lieu of presents.

Just across the lot to the northeast, sales associates at electronics retailer Best Buy are preparing for their store’s Black Friday deals. “It’s all hands on deck,” said Mike Tonatore, the location’s general manager. “Last year was the first year we opened up at midnight” following Thanksgiving, rather than at 5 a.m. Friday.

“It presents a different challenge,” he said, so far as scheduling and logistics are concerned. Key is keeping things from becoming chaotic. “We definitely monitor the number of people we let through the door.”

A busy day for the store, Tonatore said prospective customers began lining up last year by Thanksgiving afternoon. His staff is prepared, however. “We’re very clear what people’s roles will be that day,” he said.

Tonatore added that Best Buy’s Black Friday sales advert should be made available this week.